The first time I had to speak in public was for the American Association of University Women’s annual Breakfast with the Authors at theGeorgetown,MAlibrary. I was the warm-up act for André Dubus III, who is one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard. I, on the other hand, was less than stellar.
I’d avoided public speaking all my life. When I finally became a writer, I was amazed and intimidated by the amount of speaking the job requires. But hey, you want something badly enough, you do it, right?
So I stood in front of the audience of over a hundred women, my knees knocking, voice shaking. First I read a short passage of my book. I got through it. Then I began to talk about process. Somewhere along the way, I announced that my characters talk to me. The room went silent. Since The Lace Reader was, in part, about mental illness, it occurred to me that this might not have been the best public revelation I could have made. Nervously, I looked around for André whom I had not yet met. “Do your characters talk to you?” I asked, hoping he would say something to rescue me. Without missing a beat, he yelled from the back of the room, “I think there’s a medication you can take for that.”
It was one of the nicest things he could have done for me. The audience laughed, the ice was broken. I finally relaxed. When it was his turn to speak, he invited me back on stage with him. He was most gracious.
I’m a lot better at public speaking now. These days, it’s difficult to get me off the stage. But one thing has not changed. I stick to the announcement I made that morning. My characters do talk to me. Not out loud, not in so many words, maybe, but they do find ways to communicate. The real issue, I recently discovered, is not whether they’re talking but whether I’m listening.
I’m in the middle of my third book. I’ve nicknamed it “Monster in a Box #3,” an ongoing homage to Spaulding Gray. It is clearly the most ambitious and most difficult novel I’ve written. This week, I reached page four hundred. On page 401, I got stuck. My story just wouldn’t move.
I shouldn’t be surprised. The world of the story is fluid and amorphous, a mix of delusion and mythology. Creating such a world is challenging. In one sense it is the ultimate in creative expression. I can do anything I want as long as I stick to the rules of the new world I’ve created. But in another sense, it can be a confusing place full of circular references and unfamiliar icons.
Because of its complexity, I created a rather detailed outline, and the other day when I got stuck I returned to it, hoping to discover my mistake. Unfortunately, both the structure and the outline seemed fine, which meant the trouble had to be with the characters.
I should have realized this earlier. Throughout the book, I’ve had difficulty with my protagonist. She doesn’t willingly do what I expect of her. Now some degree of this is good, I think. I like to be surprised by my characters, to discover new qualities I wasn’t aware they had. But this was something more. She should have been doing what I wanted. So why wasn’t she?
I went back to her biography to find the answer. My mistake was immediately clear. There were too many new and conflicting characteristics, so many that they couldn’t all belong to my protagonist. The truth was, they belonged to someone else. Four hundred pages into the book, I realized I had just met a new character. Actually, she wasn’t new. She had been there all along, lurking in the shadows, trying to be heard. I simply hadn’t been listening.
How I didn’t hear her earlier is still a mystery to me. But now that I have, I’ve gone back to the beginning of the manuscript to see where she first appeared. I’ve listened to her life story. I’ve taken notes.
I’m happy to announce that the novel is moving again. From now on, I promise to listen more carefully to all my characters.
Do your characters talk to you? Do you listen?